Prayer Beads

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Just for fun I thought I’d post another ritual item I’ve made.  This set of prayer beads is made from snowflake obsidian beads with tiny ice flake quartz beads used as spacers.  The key bead is a ceramic scarab from Egypt, which was a gift from a friend.

In many forms of Witchcraft it’s traditional for the women—especially the High Priestess—to wear necklaces, even when working skyclad.  Faery is generally more gender fluid, though, so in my coven we all wear beads—male, female, and trans alike.

 

Finished Fresco Box

A while back I posted a few pictures of a little fresco box I was working on to honor one of the Mighty Dead.  I just realized recently that I never posted pictures of the finished work.  IMG_1626

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In addition to the frescos on the inside, I added some things to the exterior.  The symbols were burned into the wood.  Next I painted the top and bottom of the box with gouache, and sealed the whole thing with multiple coats of olive oil.

The top shows the Pearl Pentacle and the bottom shows the Iron Pentacle.  The four sides of the box are burned with six-pointed stars; as this symbol contains the traditional glyphs for all the elements, it signifies elemental balance.

Mabon

We’re coming up on one of Witchcraft’s high holidays, a very special time in the ritual year of your average Pagan, which will be marked by events and rituals all over Pagandom.

Which, of course, is why we can’t agree on what to call it.

These days, most Pagans call it Mabon. People are quick to point out that this “isn’t a traditional name” for the holiday.  If by “traditional” they mean dating back to prehistoric times and centered around a cave painting somewhere in rural France, then they’re quite correct.

Mabon is actually a name—not of a holiday but a person.  Specifically, it’s a reference to Mabon ap Modron from Welsh mythology.  As a name for the holiday it goes back to the early 1970’s when it was used in the rituals of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, written by Aidan Kelly.

Most people using this name have no connection to NROOGD.  It’s still a rather localized tradition, after all, found mostly in the western US.  What’s more, most Witches and Pagans in the US are eclectics who have no initiation in any lineaged traditions, much less NROOGD.  So “Mabon” is completely non-traditional.

Or is it?

Forty-five years is a good while.  Any institution that has been around for that long deserves a certain amount of respect, if only for its endurance.

And it runs deeper than that.  NROOGD was perhaps the first openly created Pagan tradition in America.  It never claimed to be the “Old Religion” or Traditional Wytchcræft ™.  Instead, it’s founders openly acknowledged their conscious construction of it.  In this way it signified and typified the emergence of a singularly American Paganism.  This form of Paganism and Witchcraft would reverberate throughout the Pagan landscape of this country and beyond.

The fact is that every word has to come from somewhere.  Sure, Mabon is a character in Welsh myth.  And yes, he probably was originally a Gaulish god named Maponos.  All of that is important and there’s much good in reminding people of that.  Some, however, insist that we should only use words in whatever their historical sense was because “words have power, damn it!”

Yes.  Yes they do.  The problem is, the greatest power words have is that of the shapeshifter.

Very quickly words change.  They change their spelling.  They change their pronunciation, as nearly our entire English vocabulary did in the Greater Vowel Shift during the Renaissance.  Even more, they change their meanings, whether we like it or not.  Sometimes they have double meanings—do you have a right hand and a left hand, or a correct hand and an abandoned hand?  Is Mabon the name of a god?  Sure.  Is it also the name of a holiday?  I don’t see why not.

And when we say it’s “not traditional,” what do we mean?  My predecessors in Paganism, the people I learned from—directly or indirectly—called the autumnal equinox Mabon.  That name was handed down to me.  It may have originated in modern North America—but so did I.  So did the tradition of Witchcraft I study.  For that matter, so did most of eclectic Craft.  

Why call it Mabon?  It’s traditional.

Daily Practice

Meditate. Visualize. Journal.

Meditate. Visualize. Journal.

Meditate. Visualize. Journal.

In the last few years, a rather large crop of books, blogs, and other media have popped up in the Pagan community. They’re concerned with a topic that seems to be of increasing interest: daily practice. I even wrote a few posts on this topic myself a year or two back. I shared with others the dream of having a full and elaborate practice, something beautiful, intricate, and pleasantly pious —like a proverbial Buddhist monk walking around, prayer beads at his fingertips, spouting wisdom with every exhalation. Like others, I wanted daily ritual and prayer and devotion to deepen my spirituality. As I pursued this I made an incredible discovery:

Daily practice is REALLY BORING.

Of course to say this in the Pagan community is like using profanity in a preschool. It’s practically considered blasphemous. As everyone knows, meditation, visualization, and journaling are these suuuuper deep spiritual practices that will give you amazing spiritual insights beyond anything that all those muggles/impious people/mere mortals can know. After all, that’s what it says in all the books! If it doesn’t bring you that, you must be doing it wrong.

I suffered under this mentality for quite a while. What am I doing wrong? I wondered.

I meditated and achieved some impressive internal states. But I was still just a person. I visualized and spirit journeyed, having visions of gods and spirits and all sorts of things. And I was still just a person. I recorded all of this super important stuff in my journal. And I was still just a person.

Growing up, something about the religion I was raised in always rankled me. It was that ever-present attitude that being human was somehow not enough—that in order to be worthy or valuable people we had to rise above being a normal person, rise above nature, rise above daily life itself.

It’s a foundational idea that underpins much of our culture—and several other cultures as well. People feel that life—real, true life—is something that exists in some place beyond, and we should spend all our earthly days grasping for it. We Pagans like to talk about how we’re better than all those people. Are we, though?

When I look around, I see a lot of restlessness. So many of the Pagans I know are constantly jumping—from one book to the next, one god to the next, one tradition to the next. We spend a great deal of time imitating any and every other culture. We criticize people who commit “cultural imperialism ” by being inspired by a few elements of a foreign religious tradition, but then steal the entire tradition ourselves. We are constantly searching for that new ritual, new system, new theology, new whatever that will finally bring us to…where were we trying to go again?

In my opinion, we fall into the same transcendental trap as the faiths many of us walked away from. We create an unattainable ideal, only to be frustrated when we fail to reach it. We focus on a hypothetical rather than the here and now. We visualize rather than do. We meditate rather than think. We journal rather than experience. We work ritual rather that make the real-world changes we might benefit from.

And yet I love being Pagan.

I still meditate. I still visualize. And I write down things that I want to remember. I still work rituals. Along the way though, I let go of expectations about those things.

These days, when people ask about daily practices, I tell them to wake up in the morning. Shower. Shave. Do whatever work you need to. Think of practical ways to make yourself and your community happier and healthier —and then actually do them. Go to a museum. Learn a new skill. In short, just be a person.

For me, that’s the very essence of Paganism: to live and live well. Devotion, meditation, ritual can all be part of this, but never forget that your primary job in this human life is to be a human.

So that’s the daily practice I recommend: Be human.

An Enchanted World

Before we started out, it was always important to find the right stick.  You needed one that was the right length—somewhere close to your own height.  It should be strong too; the thickness of your own grip was a good measure of its strength in relation to your weight.  But the staff was vitally important.  You’d use it as a third point of contact when going downhill.  You’d test any ground you weren’t certain of before you stepped on it.  When you came back up the ravine, you’d use it to grip the trunks of small trees and pull yourself up.

You had to wear bright colors, even if it wasn’t hunting season, just to make sure no one thought you were a deer or a wild turkey.

You had to know the terrain.  You had to know where the best descents and ascents were.  You had to know your bearings so you wouldn’t get lost.  But you also had to know where the secrets lived.

You had to know how to find the waterfall when the creek was dry so you could walk out on the ledge. You had to know which way to go from there to get to Flat Rock Cave.  If you knew the bottom of the ravine you could find the old cylinder full of bulletholes from hunters, and you could tell the story about the old conman who had promised to build a railroad there only to run off with the town’s money.  It didn’t really matter if the stories were true.

On the way back up you’d find the old section of picket fence that someone had left in the woods as a ladder on the steep incline.  In the winter, you’d sometimes find tracks at the top of the hill, distorted by the softness of the snow until you couldn’t tell the size of the animal that made them.

When I got to be older I explored other places.  I went to different states and explored.  I saw the ocean—several of them—and counted the waves in sevens.  I learned the difference between the Gulf and the Pacific by how they felt on my skin.

I even crossed the ocean.  I wandered the streets of London and climbed a mountain in Scotland.  I walked narrow medieval alleys in Canterbury and traced the course of the Isis in Oxford.  I touched the ancient stones at Avebury, amidst the bleating sheep.  I ate the blackberries that grow to size of a child’s fist between the graves at St. Cross.  I came back home and lived in the larget city in the country.

Along the way, I heard people talking, saying strange things.  How do we do it? they asked.  What theology do we have to believe?  This one—no, that one.  What rituals should we perform?  Wait, you’re doing it wrong!  How do we do it?  How?  How do we re-enchant the world?!

I don’t think I ever understood.  I nodded like I knew what they were on about.  Really, though, I didn’t get it.  Re-enchant the world?  When was it ever not enchanted?

When I was just a kid my dad would wake me up in the middle of the night sometimes to see a meteor shower or a lunar eclipse.  When I’d find an empty cicada shell Mom would give me a little mason jar to keep it in.  We’d watch deer wander into our backyard and we’d sit for long minutes just watching them eat.  Dad also taught me to love art, and Mom and Grandpa taught me to tell stories.  On my own I developed a love of history and a fascination with archaeology that my parents encouraged.  As an adult, no matter where I went, I found things to wonder at, beauty to appreciate, and sources of joy and awe that I can barely put into words.

I developed new ideas as an adult, of course.  I explored my own consciousness and found much to wonder at there.  I explored different spiritualities, and got to know my sexual life.

I grew into a very different perspective from my forebears.  Funny thing though: when we get together, my family and I find no shortage of common inspiration.  We still look up at the open sky and wonder at the stars.  We still watch the wildlife and feel grateful for the opportunity.  Dad and I still talk about art.  Mom and I still talk about books.  I laugh with my niece and nephew, wondering at the addition of these two new human beings to my life.

Re-enchant the world? When was it ever not enchanted?

Unicorn Ph.D.’s

I’ve been thinking about initiation lately.  Partly it’s because in a month or so I’ll become a Royal Arch Mason.  It’s also partly because Feri initiation probably isn’t that far away.  But largely, this post was inspired by a post over at Gardnerians—read it and follow; it’s a good blog.

As an aside, I’m not a Gardnerian.  I have great respect for that tradition and several friends who are initiates.  Hell, my Feri teacher is a Gardnerian Witch Queen—yes, that’s a thing, and yes, I’ve verified her credentials.

Not that it matters for me though, because one of the points I’m making is this: I’m a Feri student, not a Gardnerian student.  If/when I’m initiated, it doesn’t make any difference whether my initiator was also an initiate in other traditions.  Feri initiation will be the only one conferred.  It’s rather like in Masonry.  Lots of guys are given the first degree by a Master who is also Royal Arch or 32° in Scottish Rite or some other thing.  But it makes no difference.  They received the first degree.  That’s it.

It’s the same way in Witchcraft.  The other initiations of your initiator don’t matter.

I’m not trying to be an initiation snob.  I don’t think that you aren’t a real Witch if you haven’t been initiated by someone.  One definition of “initiation” is simply the act of beginning.  In that sense, initiation is something you can do yourself.  In fact it’s something anyone who practices has already done.  That said, it gets trickier when you’re talking about a tradition.  Even if you had a complete and accurate Book of Shadows and all the relevant secret names, etc., technically you could start practicing, but you wouldn’t be formally recognized as part of that group, which is another valid definition of initiation, and it’s the definition that lineaged traditions use.  So can you be a self-initiate of Gardnerian or Alexandrian or Feri?  Not in any sense that members of those traditions would recognize.  Doreen Valiente was in favor of self-initiation, but only in a vague, general, non-Gardnerian sense.  Sorry, them’s the breaks.

The only disagreement I have is about the word “Wicca.”  Here I would have to point out that it’s an old Anglo-Saxon word that just means “witch.”  Its earliest attestation is from the 9th Century (well into the Christian era in England).  It has never been exclusive to Gardnerian or related traditions.  For example, J.R.R. Tolkien used it in early drafts of LOTR to refer to Gandalf and Saruman.  In fact, it basically is the same word as “witch,” just an older spelling and pronunciation. Thus no one can really claim ownership of it.  Gerald Gardner claimed to be one of “the Wica,” not the Wicca.  Plus, until sometime in the 1980’s, Gardnerians and Alexandrians most commonly referred to their practice as Witchcraft.  It was people like Scott Cunningham who popularized the use of Wicca as a term for their craft.  (And in case you were wondering, no, I’m not a Cunningham fan.)

In some ways Feri has had a similar problem.  They used to call it Faery and get annoyed when other people called their practice Faery Witchcraft.  The problem was that “faery” is another of those pesky old words that predates the tradition, which is why they eventually created the term Feri—well, that and a few other reasons.  Lately there’s been some controversy over that name, but it’s all internal.

And in fact, this loose, eclectic milieu that’s commonly called Wicca is something you can self-initiate into—in both senses of the word.  You can begin practicing on your own and simultaneously be recognized as part of the group.  You may not like the group, and that’s fine.  But they’re going to keep on doing what they do because they can.  Sorry, them’s the breaks.

But if someone says he’s a self-initiated Gardnerian, just smile and tell him about your self-awarded Ph.D. in Unicorn Studies.

The Joy and Confusion of Being Horny: Symbols of the Horned God(s)

One of the perennial fascinations of Pagans is horns.  In Witchcraft of course it’s obvious, as horned gods play a central role in many traditions (both Wiccan and other).  I’ve notced, though, that even many Druids, Recons, and Devotional Polytheists are very interested in gods with horns.  Discussions and arguments frequently arise about horns, horned gods (and goddesses), ancient symbols with horns, etc.  Pagans love anything that’s horny.

I frequently hear a common set of “facts” brought up regarding horned gods and horn symbols, which goes something like this:
The ancient Celts worshipped a god called Cernunnos.  He was the forest god of nature and also lord of the grain.  In Greece he was called Pan, and in Britain, Herne (an English cognate of Cern).  He’s shown on the Gundestrup cauldron in a meditative posture.  With him is a ram-headed serpent which shows that he is lord of the underworld.  This is clearly related to the Pashupati seal from India, which shows the same horned god.

Yeah, um…no.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like horned gods.  I like Wicca (most of the time at least).  And not everything has to be rooted in ancient history.  But we should be honest: that theory above is just plain crap.

To start with, we don’t actually know that there ever was a deity named Cernunnos.  The name is a hypothetical reconstruction of a partial inscription.  The inscription reads ERNUNNO.  It’s found on a votive pillar (the Pillar of the Boatmen) from Roman Gaul that also features a partial image of a guy with antlers.  It’s believed that he’s in a seated position, but we really can’t be sure because his legs aren’t shown.  Based on the antlers, we assume that the inscription originally read CERNUNNO, which would (probably) mean “to the horned one” in Gaulish, a language we still don’t know all that terribly much about.  Cernunno is in the dative case, so the reconstructed nominative would be Cernunnos, meaning “horned one.”

So the Celts worshipped a god named Cernunnos?

Well, maybe.

It is a reconstruction after all.  Also, the name could be an epithet—a description rather than a name.  Epithets were pretty common in Roman Gaul.  Sometimes they were derived from Gaulish god names, sometimes not.  For all we know it could just be an epithet for one of the several local gods the Romans referred to as “Gaulish Mercury.”

But what about the Gundestrup Cauldron?  That’s known to show Cernunnos, isn’t it?  Not really.  All we know is that it shows a guy with horns on his head.  In fact, he may not even be a horned man at all—the antlers might actually be a headdress.  He shares some common symbols with other Gaulish figures, but that doesn’t mean much.  As for his “meditative” posture, scholars actually disagree on whether he’s sitting or squatting.  Given that the image is probably consistant with a hunter, the latter may be more likely.  Finally, the Cauldron was found in Northern Europe, but was probably made in Thrace, so whether it can definitively be called “Celtic” is uncertain.

Gundestrup_Cernunnos

At this point, you might be wondering about the Pashupati Seal.  People frequently compare it to the Gundestrup Cauldron and proclaim that they clearly show the same deity.  In fact, the two are similar—but what make them similar are the assumptions people make about them.

Shiva_Pashupati

The Seal was found at Mohenjo-Daro, and is an artifact of the Indus Valley Civilization.  It’s at least a thousand years older than the Cauldron (if I’m not mistaken) and from a different continent.  Aside from that, interpretations rest on many assumptions.  First, people assume the figure is some early form of Shiva Pashupati, for no real reason.  Second, this figure also might be wearing a headdress rather than actually having horns.  Third, we’re not even certain the figure is male.

Now hold on.  Horns are a masculine symbol!

Really?  Tell that to the ancient Egyptians, because no one gave them the memo.  They had both horned gods (Khnum, for instance) and horned goddesses (Isis and Hathor were both depicted with horned headdresses). This shouldn’t be surprising.  There are in fact species of cows in which both males and females have horns.  This is true for some species of deer as well—reindeer, for example, have antlers regardless of sex.  Wearing horns doesn’t make a figure male or divine.

It also doesn’t make it the same figure as another simply because of the horns.   The Greek god Pan has goat horns.  The Pashupati Seal shows water buffalo horns.  The Gundestrup Cauldron and the Pillar of the Boatmen show figures with antlers.  This is an important distinction, since it may imply different themes.  While horns are generally a permanent feature, antlers often aren’t.  Many deer species loose their antlers every year and grow new ones.

As for Herne, it’s a great myth, but Herne and Cernunnos probably aren’t cognate.  Sorry.

A question immediately follows, however: Does any of this matter?  That depends on your view.  Are all these gods the same?  Are they wholly different?  Points on a spectrum?  Are they forms of an underlying archetype or individual divine persons.  Are they even real?  It depends on your theology, and theology is something I generally don’t discuss in detail here at the Wanderer’s Temple, so I’ll leave it to you to figure out.

Celtic Symbols II

A while back I wrote a post on Celtic symbols.  At the time I had a cold and was bored from being stuck inside for a while, so I took it as an opportunity to talk about the way symbols—particularly one symbol, the triskelion—are applied in modern “Celtic” magic, and why I think it should be changed slightly.  In the last few months that post had been very popular, regularly getting hits.  Much to my surprise, people from all over the world have looked at it.  My stats have shown visitors not only from the US, but even places as far flung as Scandinavia, Australia, and South America.  At first I thought it was just the hubbub over St. Patrick’s Day, but the hits continue to come in even a month later.  With that in mind I thought I should talk a little more about Celtic symbols in general, and recommend some good books on them.

First off, let’s talk about that triskelion again!  It’s on of the more popular symbols, and with good reason.  It’s actually found all over the world.  It was used both by the Celts and their predecessors in the Isles, and still appears on the flag of the Isle of Man. Sometimes it’s a basic arrangement if three lines; sometimes it’s made up of human arms or legs linked together, or even rabbit’s ears.  Its exact meaning is unclear, but that is probably because it has always had multiple meanings.  

As it’s used in the Irish passage tombs, it seems to symbolize the sun at the solstice, possibly referring to the fact that at the solstice, the sun seems to sit at the same point on the horizon for about three days in a row.  As human arms it clearly shows solidarity of a group of people.  In fact, in one of the magical groups I work with, we sometimes link our right arms together in a triskelion to empower our magic (which works well since we’re a group of three).  It’s even speculated that it could represent the three trimesters of a human pregnancy, so as you can see, there are many ways you can use it.

But what are some other Celtic symbols for magic?

The next most obvious is Ogham.  Ogham is actually a hugely complex system of writing that you can go as deeply into as you want.  Quite a few people have written doctoral theses on it.  However, the “tree Ogham ” is the one most commonly used now, and it’s the best place to start.  We don’t really know when exactly Ogham came into being.  It’s been around since at least the early middle ages, and could be much older.  It was famously interpreted by Robert Graves as a sort of calendar, but I don’t recommend his writings on it—after all, Ogham experts in his own family found his ideas ridiculous.  (Don’t you just hate those guys who make up their own calendars?) Somewhere along the way divinitory meanings were attached to the letters.  So far, one of the best books on Ogham I’ve found is Skip Ellison’s Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids.  It’s well worth the money and the read.  At the very least, Ogham is a great alphabet for sigils, as well as for “encrypting” magical writings, since to the untrained eye it doesn’t even look like writing.  I’m planning a big project with Ogham, but I won’t go into that too much (yet).

By far the most common Celtic symbols are the ones that are usually dismissed as “decorative.”  These are things like floral patterns, stylized animals , and human faces found all over Celtic objects from antiquity.  As I said, they’re usually dismissed because people assume their only purpose was to look pretty.  As Graham Robb shows in The Discovery of Middle Earth, they are sometimes actually intricate mathematical patterns tied to the cycles of nature.  In fact, Robb’s book is an excellent resource for Celtic symbolism.

For modern symbols based on Celtic culture, you might want to look at some of Ian Corrigan’s books, many of which use symbols he has developed through years of working Celtic magic. I’m not a fan of his system of creating sigils with the Fege Find—it’s an awkward and cumbersome technique that ignores the actual meaning of the symbol.  Other than that though, I like his use of symbolism.

If there are any other symbols—Celtic or otherwise—that you’d like to read about or if you have any book recommendations, let me know in the comments.

The Starving Time 

I generally like to stay away from being argumentative.  However there are some cases in which I feel that quibbling can actually be informative.  With that in mind, I have to address one more common mistake I see repeated in western Paganism.

Each year I see writings (both on blogs and in published books) about the “starving time.”  These pieces generally talk about how Spring and Summer are the time of plenty, while Winter and Fall (the dark half of the year) are the time of hunger.

It may surprise many Pagans to know that this is entirely backwards.

In the agrarian communities of old Europe, Winter was a time of plenty.  The harvest had been reaped in the Fall, the grain and fruit being stored in pantries, or brewed into Winter beverages.  The animals were often brought in (sometimes right into the house) to share mutual warmth with humans.  The older animals would be slaughtered, their meat stored and eaten throughout the cold season.  During this time people often had an abundance of food, which is why holidays for this season from many traditions involve feasting.

Contrary to popular belief, Spring was the season during which people often went hungry.  The foodstores had been exhausted, and the people went out to plant and turned their animals out to pasture.  Milk and eggs were in some cases the main source of food available apart from what could be gained by foraging and hunting.  It would be months before the grain and fruit (with some exceptions) would be ripe for harvesting.

In modern times we are able to rely on such things being imported from other countries.  We bring in fruit and grain from the other side of the world to fill our stores.  But let’s not forget how our ancestors actually lived.

Eqinox as Balance?

I know, I know.  I’m a bit late in talking about this, but some things need to be said.

A week ago today was the Vernal Equinox, known to witches as Ostara.  In the Draíochta calendar, this is when we transition from the time of the Morrigan (which began at the Autumnal Equinox) to the time of Aine, the Goddess of Spring.

The week of the Equinox I kept seeing blog posts about how eqinoxes are a time of balance, peace, and stability.  Sounds good, right?  Everyone emphasized how day and night were now in perfect equality.  However, it seems everyone had a hectic week last week.  The other celestial events (“supermoon ” and solar eclipse) notwithstanding, there is a reason for this.

While it feels good and nature-loving to talk about balance, people overlook one very important thing.  On an equinox, day and night are in balance just for a moment.  It is actually a time of serious transition, a tipping of the scales.  As Pagans should well know, these shifts do not come without their fare share of upheaval. Here in New York, it was a day of weird weather, weirder occurances, miscommunications, and everyone rushing about, trying to get things in order. 

By contrast, solstices are traditionally times of stability, because it’s during solstices that the sun appears to rise or set at the same point on the horizon for several days in a row, while during the rest of the year it moves gradually north or south.  Balance, on the other hand, is almost always precarious.  This is how the Wheel turns.

I hope everyone weathered the storm well!